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Editorial: The definition of a conflict of interest

Editorial: The definition of a conflict of interest

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On page 1 of this issue (continued to Page 5), Steve Mumm of Westside advocated for the E911 Service Board to take over negotiations for the Ridge Road tower

Supervisor Kyle Schultz, who is the chairman of the E911 board, floated the same idea at the July 20 supervisors meeting.

That’s a preposterous idea, since the E911 board is the entity that got the county into the mess in the first place by handing over money and county property to a private entity.

Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand recently determined that Duane Zenk improperly arranged for public funds to be used to support a radio tower for the Crawford County Firefighters Association (CCFFA).

According to Sand’s report, Crawford County Auditor Terri Martens identified $280,079 of disbursements related to the construction, equipment and maintenance of the Ridge Road tower project site from the E911 between July 1, 2015, and April 10, 2018.

Sand said the tower should be turned over to the E911 board or the county to resolve the issue.

Mumm said that since the money in dispute came through the E911 board, the E911 board should handle the negotiations.

That’s kind of like letting the fox handle the investigation into how the fox got into the henhouse.

Mumm said he didn’t see any real problem with E911 giving money to the Crawford County Firefighters Association (CCFFA) because the CCFFA is “trying to serve the people of the county.”

The problem here is that the law says the E911 funds are for systems “to be operated under governmental management and control for the public benefit.”

It doesn’t matter what a private entity does – it’s simply not eligible for the funds.

The CCFFA is a private entity.

Mumm is a member of a public board – the E911 board – for which the expectation is he will serve the public, not some other entity to which he belongs.

He told the supervisors that he’s not too concerned that the law was broken and that he will continue to support a private entity instead of the public entity of which he is a member.

According to board of supervisors’ minutes, at least $105,700, beyond what Sand reported, was given by E911 to the CCFFA between 2000 and 2014 for “tower funding,” a generator, maintenance and “tower usage.”

Those funds were presumably for the old CCFFA radio tower that was replaced in 2016.

The Denison Volunteer Fire Department website says the CCFFA purchased the Farmland radio tower for $13,000 and “Several of the board of directors of the association signed a promissory note with the Crawford County Trust and Savings bank to finance the purchase and the county fire association took possession in July of 2000.”

The CCFFA received $15,000 from E911 between December 2000 and August 2002, according to the supervisors’ minutes.

The appearance here is that the county has already paid for the tower.

In his report, the state auditor said, “The county should implement changes which ensure a clear separation from the CCFFA’s operations, including staff and ensuring each entity is responsible for its own activities. County activity should not be commingled with the activity of a nonprofit.”

The Bulletin and Review asked Mumm and Schultz if the E911 board had made sure that its funds had been used for appropriate purposes.

Mumm said they had not done an audit, but the E911 board does a yearly budget that has to go by the supervisors.

That process is obviously broken.

The supervisors trusted that Duane Zenk was using the E911 funds according to Iowa Code.

As it turned out, the supervisors shouldn’t have trusted him.

Mumm said Zenk should get a pat on the back for all his work getting the tower built and was instead getting a black eye because of the Bulletin and Review editorial of July 16.

The state auditor singled out Zenk’s “potential conflict of interest” in the tower situation.

“Mr. Zenk signed the Wireless 911 Carryover Funds grant application and the request for reimbursement from the grant,” wrote Sand. “He signed those documents acting as the 911 Board Chair. However, the grant funds were requested in order to support a tower owned by the CCFFA.”

Sand noted that Zenk had signed grant documents that stated he fully understood the laws, rules, and associated grant application guidelines and that “he would have been aware the Ridge Road Tower was to be operated and managed by a governmental entity, i.e., the county. In addition, as a member of CCFFA he would have had the opportunity to inform the CCFFA the Ridge Road Tower was to be operated and managed by a governmental entity …”

We would hope that Zenk gets a black eye out of this, as he is at the center of an issue in which he appears to have diverted about $400,000 in public funds and property to his preferred private entity in violation of Iowa Code.

Just as the supervisors were unaware of what Zenk was doing, it seems likely that most members of the CCFFA were similarly led to believe that his actions were above board.

The Bulletin and Review fully supports the training exercises for which the CCFFA says it needs funding.

The CCFFA can make a request of the board of supervisors, just as any other organization would make a request for funds.

The supervisors have already indicated that they find the CCFFA training events to be important and necessary; the request would very likely be granted.

Given that the Ridge Road tower and its predecessor were supported with an enormous amount of public funds to which the CCFFA had no legal claim, the organization should do the right thing and turn the property over to the county.

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